Just days short of his 95th birthday, Neville Baker died peacefully in Sussexdown Care Home on Thursday 11th July.
He’d originally joined the RAF in 1942, and after training in South Africa he flew Dakota C47 in North Africa and Palestine. He stayed on as a regular, becoming a flying instructor including a posting to Ceylon. He converted to helicopters in 1956, doing Search and Rescue in the UK as well on secondment with the Hong Kong Auxiliary Air Force.
He retired from the RAF and went under contract to SOAF in 1970, as a Squadron Leader, to lead the introduction of helicopters into SAF in what became 3 Squadron. Initially simply four light Agusta Bell 206s, followed in 1971 by the first batch of eight AB 205s (the ideally-suited Huey) – giving SAF invaluable capabilities of operational flexibility in dominating larger areas, through troop insertion, resupply, and casualty evacuation.
At this stage, all the pilots were necessarily expatriates but Neville’s approach was entirely pragmatic, ensuring a spread of experience and backgrounds to underpin the building of an entirely new unit facing the particular challenges and uncertainties of operating in Dhofar. 3 Squadron was involved in every facet of military action over the next five years, earning the later tribute from General Akehurst that “Without the helicopters the war might be going on yet – I always claimed these pilots to be the most skilful in the world at that time”.
Neville led from the front and played his part in many of the high and low moments during the Dhofar War, including the Battle of Mirbat in July 1972. After four years in command, he was promoted and posted to a different appointment in the north; but, importantly, he also went briefly back to 3 Squadron to fill a gap during the build-up to the final crucial operations. He left SOAF in December 1976 – “the best seven years of my life”.
He later went back to settle quietly in Brighton, but with memories that stayed pin-sharp. Flying had been his life, and his time with 3 Squadron the pinnacle of it.